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Precursors to Modernism
Transcript of Precursors to Modernism
www.whitmanarchive.org The Modernism Lab at Yale U
(Creative Commons License) off-rhyme (half-rhyme, slant rhyme)
odd, broken meters—no smooth rhythm
dashes and difficult syntax
the opposite of Whitman’s ease and conversation
where Whitman turns outward, Dickinson turns inward
at the other end of modernism: poetry is difficult and need not speak to everyone. It’s okay to be obscure.
irony “True, with respect to meaning-making, Dickinson is very much of her time: despite her complex and difficult metaphysic, she believes that poetry can articulate truths, even if those truths are to be told "slant." But if Dickinson is not a Modernist, she is, ironically, very much a precursor of what we might call the "differential" poetics of our own time– "differential" in that there is not one "correct" or even preferred text–but a variorum set that allows the reader to consider alternatives… [H]er visual poetics–the reliance of the look on the page to create and challenge meanings–is nothing if not postmodern.” Marjorie Perloff Hugely influential among women writers.
Adrienne Rich claims "Dickinson is the American poet whose work consisted in exploring states of psychic extremity,” and goes on to claim that “More than any other poet, Emily Dickinson seemed to tell me that the intense inner event, the personal and psychological, was inseparable from the universal." Irony
Skepticism and doubt—nothing is for sure anymore
Resists conventional ideas and social expectations
A kind of negative, but still rebellious, fight against the world and its rules Ezra Pound: "No one has taught me anything about writing since Thomas Hardy died." (1934) Auden loved Hardy and considered him an early master. He said Hardy was "Modern without being too modern" and "gave me hope where a flawless poet might have made me despair." By far the most troubled relationship the Moderns have is with Whitman. Eliot finds Whitman too sentimental, chaotic, and personal:
“To Walt Whitman, a great influence on modern literature has been attributed. I wonder if this has not been exaggerated. In this respect, he reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins—a lesser poet than Whitman, but also a remarkable innovator in style. Whitman and Hopkins, I think, both found an idiom and a metric perfectly suited for what they had to say; and very doubtfully adaptable to what anyone else has to say.”
(though he does seem to warm up to Whitman later in life) In his early career, Pound complains about Whitman's formlessness and long lines.
But in 1913, Pound publishes “A Pact”:
I make a pact with you Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us. In a late essay, “What I Feel About Walt Whitman,” Pound writes: "Whitman IS America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but he IS America… he is disgusting. He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplished his mission… I read him (in many parts) with acute pain, but when I write of certain things I find myself using his rhythms." Pound:
“Mentally, I am a Walt Whitman who has learned to wear a collar and a dress shirt (although at times inimical to both).” William Carlos Williams openly acknowledges Whitman as “a key man to whom I keep returning” and says "Whitman created the art of poetry in America."
In Against the Weather: A Study of the Artist he says Whitman is “tremendously important in the history of modern poetry… he broke through the deadness of copied forms… that was basic and good”
Whitman “always said that the poems, which had broken the dominance of the iambic pentameter in English prosody, had only begun his theme. I agree. It is up to us, in the new dialect, to continue it by a new construction upon the syllables.” Langston Hughes saw Whitman as a powerful ally and influence.
In his autobiography, he talks about sailing to Africa as a cabin boy in order to discover himself. He throws most of his textbooks from Columbia overboard but keeps Leaves of Grass: "I had no intention of throwing that one away." From “Old Walt” –written by Hughes for Whitman's 100th birthday
Old Walt Whitman
Went finding and seeking,
Finding less than sought,
Seeking more than found.
Every detail minding
Of the seeking or the finding,
In seeking as in finding.
Each detail minding,
Old Walt went seeking
And finding In “The Ceaseless Rings of Walt Whitman," Hughes writes: "Whitman sang without the frills, furbelows, and decorations of conventional poetry, usually without rhyme or measured prettiness. Perhaps because of his simplicity, timid poetry lovers over the years have been frightened away from his Leaves of Grass, poems as firmly rooted and as brightly growing as the grass itself."